Monday, August 2, 2010

Trust but Verify

When I was troubleshooting in the lab early in graduate school, I learned an invaluable lesson from my advisor. Don't take anything for granted. My advisor would ask me the STUPIDEST questions when helping me troubleshoot (or so I thought). Stuff along the lines of: Did you make the gel with TAE or with water? Duh. Of course I made it with TAE. Please, give me some credit! But he persisted with these very basic questions.

I don't recall if I finally confronted him, or slowly realized that this type of inquiry was not trying to insult my intelligence or competence, but served to help troubleshoot in several ways:

1. Everyone makes mistakes. Even simple mistakes. It could be that one very simple thing that you let slip your mind.

2. Most common problems in the lab are the result of simple mistakes. You could make things a lot worse for yourself by trying to fix a strange complicated mistake when in actuality, it was something very simple.

3. It trained me to be conscious of the details of all steps, and not to put things on "autopilot". After being grilled on the basics a few times, I knew I HAD BETTER be able to say with certainty that I had indeed made the gel with TAE, not water. That means I have to remember making it, that means I have to be "present" while making it, not off in la-la land (or even hypothesis-land). Fear of my advisor's condescension drove me to be sharper.

So today we were troubleshooting in my lab, and I grilled my student on all the fine details. The difference was that I explain to my student- unlike my advisor who hurt my feelings a few times until I got it- that this is just the process of science and that I wasn't trying to "get" him or her. Trust but Verify, ay?

Sure enough, Stu had left out of their "consciousness" (and lab book, grrrr) a few vital concentrations and steps. I think today's grilling was vital to Stu's learning the same lesson as I did, at an earlier stage in Stu's training. I don't care if they learn, like I did, through fear of reprisal to note and attend to their work. And to use the "simple first" method of troubleshooting.


  1. Yay! good for you! Good mentoring!

    I've also found that, done correctly, the "simple first" method can actually help build confidence. So you can say as you go through the list, "look, you did all these other things correctly! Good job! So it looks like maybe you just missed this one step."

    Because really, lab work is insanely complicated when you step back and look at it. I was talking to a student the other day who said she was afraid she cut the wrong band out of her gel and then took the wrong antibiotic plates out of the cold room.

    And I was thinking wow, all these things, sometimes I'm amazed that we expect students to do this on their own and that it ever works at all. Which is why I try to congratulate them early and often.

    You got bands on the gel! Good job!
    They're the right size! Good job!
    The cultures grew! Good job!

    Etc. Then when something goes wrong, they don't focus so much on "oh shit, I'm going to have to do this whole 2-day protocol all over again I'm a total failure I suck at lab work"

    but the thinking should be more like,

    "Ok, this time I'm going to do everything right including that one step I missed last time, and it will be easier because I've done it before."

  2. Great point, Ms.PhD. I hadn't looked at it as a way to affirm, too. Thanks.

  3. Essential lesson. Your students are so lucky to have you as a mentor.

    It seems like this lesson often has to be learned the hard way. And it took me awhile to also learn that it applies universally, whether you're doing something yourself, having someone else do it, or learning something from someone else. That last one is tricky, but can be essential.